Grover Beach mauling case proves California needs tougher laws on attack dogs

It was no “tragic accident” that killed 64-year-old David Fear and badly injured the neighbor he was trying to rescue, 85-year-old Betty Long.

It was a gruesome attack by a retired police dog that had managed to break through a fence and run loose in a Grover Beach neighborhood.

“Accident” diminishes what occurred that day; this was a nightmare that directly resulted from an error in judgment.

The dog’s owner, former Grover Beach police officer Alex Geiger, 27, believed a wooden fence was strong enough to hold the dog —even though his roommate had reported seeing a small hole in the fence on the very day of the attack. Geiger briefly checked the fence, then went back on duty.

Recently, a jury found Geiger, 27, not guilty of three felony charges: two counts of failing to control a dangerous animal and involuntary manslaughter.

We respect the jury’s decision, though this is one of those instances when the criminal justice system defies logic.

A prison or even a jail sentence would have accomplished nothing, yet it’s hard to fathom that something so serious would not even lead to a misdemeanor conviction and probation.

But here’s the thing: There was a high bar for the prosecution to meet, even for the lesser charges of failing to control a dangerous animal.

For a conviction, there must be proof that the owner let the animal run free, or failed to use ordinary care in keeping it.

The prosecution alleged Geiger was negligent because he failed to properly secure Neo, a Belgian Malinois he had been paired with at his previous job with the Exeter Police Department.

The defense successfully countered that there are no standards for how retired K-9s should be housed.

In other words, there is no standard for judging “ordinary care.”

That’s wrong; even though fatal dog attacks are rare, and attacks by retired police K-9s even rarer, the consequences are so horrific that every precaution must be taken to make sure these dogs are safely and securely housed.

“These are not ordinary dogs, not ordinary pets, and yet there are no standards for keeping them in our communities,” Los Angeles attorney Kenneth Phillips writes on his blog, Dog Bite Law.

Phillips, who specializes in dog-bite cases, believes there should be national standards not only for retired police dogs, but also for other potentially dangerous canines, such as guard dogs. Otherwise, owners can try to skirt the law in their own state by relocating their pets.

“Dogs proven to be vicious should be put down, not relocated across state lines or sent to another country,” he told us via email.

National standards would be ideal, but as a more immediate step, we urge California lawmakers to establish statewide standards to hold owners of attack dogs more accountable.

And no, accountability should not be left to civil courts, as the defense argued in the Geiger case. A civil judgment is small comfort for the family of someone maimed or killed in a dog attack. More must be done to prevent these brutal incidents from happening in the first place.

Various police departments already have standards for off-duty, working police dogs. These could be adapted to retired dogs — and ideally, to other dogs trained to attack.

The city of Anaheim, for example, requires an off-duty police dog to be housed in a locked kennel at the handler’s home. The dog can be let out of the kennel “while under the direct control of the handler” and allowed to socialize with the handler’s family “for short periods of time and under the direct supervision of the handler.”

The city of Lynwood requires off-duty K-9s to be housed either in a secure kennel or yard approved by a canine sergeant. It also limits K-9s to playing with immediate family members and only with family pets — in other words, no romping with the neighbor kids or their dogs.

These may sound like harsh restrictions, but if a dangerous animal is going to live in a residential neighborhood, the safety of residents must come first. Not only should there be standards in place for securing animals, there also should be inspections by local animal control officers to ensure the regulations are followed.

As a tribute to David Fear and Betty Long, The Tribune strongly urges local law enforcement agencies, the District Attorney’s Office and local lawmakers to promote passage of statewide standards for housing dangerous dogs.

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